Almost two weeks ago I was at the 24th International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM) in Manchester, England. At more than 1700 registered participants it may have been the largest gathering devoted to the history of science, technolgoy and medicine ever.
The week long conference saw more than 1300 hundred talks organized into more than 400 sessions that ran up to 23 at a time. Some talks occurred as part of an organized panel or symposium on a single topic or theme, while others talks were submitted individually and grouped into sessions as best as the organizers could manage.
There were over 40 talks that related directly to the history of computers, computing and IT and these talks were by historians from all over the world.
The largest symposium on IT history was “Mathematics and machines: explorations of machine-assisted mathematics since 1800” this consisted of 12 speakers (including myself) over the course of an entire day. The sessions dealt with various attempts to apply various machines and computers to problems in pure and applied mathematics, from attempts by the scientists of the German 3rd Reich to build analog computers to the attempts to carry out the development and proof of mathematical theorems automatically with computers.
The “Data at Work” Symposium consisted of 8 papers and dealt with two different themes, one session focused on the role of computers in bio-medical science in the past 60 years and the rise to prominence of computer methods and tools in those disciplines from the use of computers in DNA research to the use of medical databases to inform the public. The other session focused on ideas and culture around programming computers from early perspectives on programming the ENIAC to the attempts to educate the British public about computers that surrounded the BBC microcomputer of the 1980s. This symposium was sponsored by SHOT‘s Special Interest Group for Computers, Information and Society (SIGCIS).
The last pre-arranged symposium on an IT subject was “Enforced specialization in computing technology: debugging the history of cooperation and competition in COMECON countries“, a look at how computer technologies were developped and spread in communist Eastern Europe at the height of the cold war. IT consisted of four talks. The talks discussed various specific computers and networking projects in Romania, Poland, Finland and in the Communist block as a whole. This symposium was sponsored by ICOHTEC, the International Committee for the History of Technology.
One other session consisted of only IT focused talks, but was assembled from stand-alone submissions, “Information technology, communications, networks“. The talks covered the personal computer business in Brazil in the early 1980s, the translation into Chinese of early Russian computer textbooks and manuals, the first computer in Canada and an analysis of the success and failures of various network technologies. Despite the ad hoc assembly of this session it served as a reminder of the significant variation in the national character of computing in various geographic reasons at various points in history.
The University of Manchester where the conference was held also saw the final days of Alan Turing. His presence in various memorials (including a large poster spread over a utility building) is strongly felt on the campus and was recognized by an informal excursion at the conference the Turing History walk. Turing was remarkable by his absence from any of the talks at the event, suggesting perhaps a fatigue after the intense scrutiny of the Turing Centenary. Only one abstract contains Turing’s name for a pair of special sessions entitled “Manchester in the history of science, technology and medicine“. These were roundtable discussions of key figures, events and trends in the history of Manchester and its university focused on how local historians engage with university’s heritage.
The broad history of computing (including hand computations, tables, adding machines etc.) has a very long history and an interesting interaction of the old and the new was presented by the session “Using modern computing power to analyse and explicate ancient astronomical sources: opportunities and challenges“. The speakers in these sessions explained how modern computer techniques from programs in Fortran to Excel spreadsheets were used to help understand how ancient mathematical and astronomical tables were produced and used.
Various other individual papers deal with computers directly or indirectly. Papers such as Johannes Lenhard’s (University of Bielefeld) “Disciplines, models, and computers: the path to computational quantum chemistry” tackle computer head on. Such papers also illustrate the intimate relation between modern science and the computer.
Other papers dealt with the cultural context of computing such as Sarah Marks’s (University College London) talk “Rewriting Marxism for the computer age: the ‘scientific-technical revolution’ in Cold War Czechoslovakia and East Germany“.
Zbigniew Stachniak (York University, Toronto) addressed the problem of how to study the artifacts of computer history when they are often fragile and impossible to replace by advocating for the use of emulators in his talk “Canada Experimentation with computer hardware artefacts“.
Some histories deal with very recent events such as Kah Chan’s (Victoria University of Wellington) talk “The effect of point-of-view cameras on cycle commuting” where modern digital storage and networking technolgoy combine to allow new avenues of communication about social problems.
John Laprise (Northwestern University, Qatar) spoke on “Chilling effects: the perasive influence of Cold War telecommunications security policy” discussing the technologies and techniques developed by the United States intellegence services. John gave a sample of this talk in a post on the conference’s blog a week before the conference. Such blog posts and also twitter participation were part of the conference organizers strategy to use new media and the blog continues to be updated in with more information and commentary.
I was not able to attend all of the talks I’ve discussed so far and there are many more in the conference’s programme (I will list more of these at the bottom of this post), however I hope they give a sense of the significance of the conference for the history of IT and related fields. For me the conference reinforced the my sense of both the diversity and interdependence of the field. In my own work I have explored the interaction between scientific computing and the invention and development of the computer and along the way seen the importance of business history to the story. In this conference we see talks that illustrate the diversity in applications of IT, geographic or national diversity in technology and style and the changes in conception of the field overtime. However many of the papers also manage to capture various continuities and connections between these diverse elements.
This conference also reminded me of the great barrier to global history of science in that while some scholars are willing and able to share their work in English, much of the history of computing remains inaccessible and ignored by those of us who occupy the anglophone world. While all but one of the talks I attended was in English, I saw again that many of the participants published much of their work in their native language.
Other speakers and their papers that touch on IT and computing history:
Patrick McCray (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Learning to share: modern astronomers, data, and networks.” (scientific computing, data processing)
Walter Lenz (Institute of Oceanography, University of Hamburg) “On the understanding of plankton blooms in the North Sea: from single-net catches to 3D-dynanical computer simulations.” (scientific computation)
Anna Carlsson-Hyslop (Lancaster University) “Patronage and statistical storm surge forecasting at the Liverpool Tidal Institute, 1919-1959.” (scientific computation)
Isaac Record (University of Toronto) “How simulations become evidence.” (scientific computation)
Edward Jurkowitz (University of Notre Dame) “From cannon shell trajectories to atoms: Douglas Hartree and Ralph Fowler’s World War I ballistics and the calculation of atomic properties.” (scientific computation)
Aleksandra Petrova (Saint-Petersburg State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering) “The history of Euler’s problem of vertical bar stability from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.” (scientific computation)
Jenny Shaw (Wellcome Trust) “Documenting science: applying archival theory to the Human Genome Project.” (scientific computing, data processing, preservation of digital information)
Per Lundin (Uppsala University) “Documenting the use of computers in Swedish society between 1950 and 1980.” (computers and society)
Dick van Lente (Erasmus University Rotterdam) “Explaining computers and automation to large lay audiences: the Netherlands, 1945-1970.” (computers and society)
Alexandra Supper (Maastricht University) “Lobbying for the Ear, Listening with the Whole Body: The Contested Scientific Legitimacy of Sonification.” (digital interfaces and instrumentation)
Marcia Holmes (University of Chicago) “Engineering the air traffic controller: the psychology of man-machine systems and the control of airspace, 1945-1958.” (cybernetics, automation)
Layne Karafantis (Johns Hopkins University) “Spaces of control: exploring the design of command centers.” (cybernetics)
Ronan le Roux (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne EA 2483 CETCOPRA) “From metaphors to operational models: putting cybernetic concepts at work in postwar France (or not).” (cybernetics)
Nadia Ambrosetti (Università di Milano) “The automaton meme: an evolutionary study of protocybernetics from antiquity to the Renaissance.” (cybernetics, automata)
Seb Falk (University of Cambridge) “Putting classical astronomy to work: the design and use of a medieval equatorium.” (mechanical calculation)
John D. Morgan (University of Delaware) “The lunisolar calendar on the Antikythera mechanism.” (mechanical calculation)
James Evans (University of Puget Sound) “Approaches for the epoch of the Antikythera mechanism.” (mechanical calculation)
There are undoubtedly more talks that related to IT and comptuer history that I have neglected to list or mention. Please point them out in the comments.